“Praised be” – Encyclical day is here

LaudatoSi-255x397So today is the big day. I’ve not seen such excitement for the launch of an encyclical, but, then again, I’ve only been around as a Catholic for four of them. But this time around, everyone has an opinion, in part because they’ve seen the leaked early draft of Laudato Si’*, but mostly because the encyclical’s topic is such a heavily politicised one. Especially on the American side of the Atlantic, I notice that the question of the environment, and especially global warming, is seen as inherently connected and opposed to questions of population control and, more often than not, economic concerns. The issue of the scientific validity of what Pope Francis is a distant third element of the opposition.

Are these concerns warranted? Will Laudato Si’ suddenly advocate population control to protect the environment? That would be highly unlikely, considering that Pope Francis has time and again spoken against such things as abortion, euthanasia and curtailing the rights of people, which would all be means to the end of population control. Will Pope Francis speak against economic concerns as the driving force in our lives and actions? That seems almost certain, at least if these concerns plunge others in poverty and destroy their environment. Pope Francis’ chief concerns do not lie with western multinationals or millionaires, but with the poor and marginalised of the world. He is all for the common good, but not at the expense of others, or of the environment in which we all live. And that is also the Catholic attitude,and not without reason has Pope Francis said that Laudato Si’ will lie fully within the whole of Catholic social teaching.

In the end, it all boils down to the Creation stories of Genesis, in which we learn that man’s place in Creation is that of a steward. Yes, he can make use of what the world offers, but also has a duty to maintain it and not exploit or destroy it. Man is a part of Creation. He is not separate. If we destroy or exploit the world around us, we ultimately destroy ourselves. God has given us a world to live in and care for.

Are the concerns we hear against a major focus on the environment without any basis then? Not if our environmental concerns overshadow the care we must have for the people in our society and in other societies across the world. We must balance these concerns.

In the end, Laudato Si’ will be a document that needs to be read positively. It wants to invite us to act towards the betterment of ourselves and all of creation,not force us to stop and change what is good about our use of the environment.

*As an aside, this encyclical will be the first one since 1937 not to have an official Latin title. Encyclicals are titled after their opening words,which in this case happen to come from Saint Francis’ Caticle of the Sun,which was written in the Umbrian dialect of Italian. In 1937, Pope Pius XI wrote his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge in German, as it was directed against the Nazi dictatorship in Germany.

Going green – Christians and the environment

VATICAN-RELIGION-POPE-CANONISATIONBefore summer we may expect Pope Francis’ second encyclical, and its topic will be the environment. For some reason the prospect of a green encyclical has a some Catholics all riled up. Apparently, it is not something the Church should be overly concerned with.

I do notice that this subject is quite politicised, especially in the United States, which is where most of the criticism comes from. It is a left-wing or liberal pet subject, it’s true, and that side of the political spectrum quite often clashes with Catholic faith, to be fair.

But concern for the environment is, in fact, quite Christian. Pope Francis touched upon the subject in his homily this morning, when he said:

It is our response to the ‘first creation’ of God. It is our responsibility! A Christian that does not care for creation, that does not make it grow, is a Christian who doesn’t care about the work of God; that work born from the love of God for us. And this is the first answer to the first creation: to care for Creation, to make it grow.”

The creation story in Genesis, which prompted the Holy Father to make these comments, is the clearest indication of our relation to the world we live in. Not as independent agents, even parasites, whose only effect on the natural world is destruction, as some would have it, but as integral parts of it with a clear duty.

God created us and the world we live in. These are not separate things. Humanity has a role to play in the world: we are to be stewards of it. A good steward is not afraid to use the world around him, but does so with responsibility, in the knowledge that, like him, his world is also a creation of God. He is not the master of it, but he has been given a duty, as we my deduce from Genesis chapter 1, verses 28 and 29:

“God blessed them, saying to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all the living creatures that move on earth.”

God also said, ‘Look, to you I give all the seed-bearing plants everywhere on the surface of the earth, and all the trees with seed-bearing fruit; this will be your food.””

There is no debate about man’s use of the world around him. Considering the human influence parasitic and undesirable  is therefore incompatible with Christian teaching. But looking at the larger context of creation as being a product of God given to man for his benefit, we must develop a responsibility. God’s creation is not ours to destroy or give back. It is for us to use and maintain.

In that context environmentalism is a thoroughly Christian concern, and it is no stranger a topic for an encyclical than, say, faith, charity, hope or love.

The road to full humanity – Bishop Hanke’s Advent letter

In his letter for Advent, Eichstätt’s Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke delves into the Incarnation, and specifically how the Incarnation of the Son of God also shows the way to our own incarnation. In other words, how we can become fully human according the plan of the Creator.

hanke“Dear sisters and brothers!

Anticipation for the birth

A married couple expecting a child prepares for the event. The pregnant woman takes medical advice and denies herself a number of things. Long before the due date, the hospital bag is packed. Everything is guided by joy. Family and friends are also full of expectation. With the first Sunday of Advent, this week, a time of joyful expectation begins also for us. We prepare ourselves for the feast of the birth of the Lord. God becomes man in Jesus Christ!

The incarnation of God is a permanent invitation

The incarnation of God is not simply history, but a permanent invitation from God to us, here and now, to start on His way of becoming human. The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Church in the World, explains the meaning of the incarnation of the Son of God for our humanity: “For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. […] The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”[1]

Humanity as personhood in crisis

A look at the Son of God become man and His way as a man shows a need for a way of becoming man. It seems as if man of today has become a question himself,  as if his recognition as human, as a person with value, is in crisis.

Worldwide crisis of humanity

Despite progress, the accumulation of knowledge and growing global awareness of the unity of humanity, the dignity of people is trampled in many parts of the world. Economic and political power interests, or even fanatical religion will be their own end. Man in his dignity is left behind. At present we experience this dramatically in conflicts and hostilities. Millions of people are on the run, minorities are threatened. We think first of all of Syria and Iraq, where our Christian sisters and brothers suffer the hardships of persecution.

But the crisis of humanity is also visible around us:

Crisis of human dignity: debates on assisted suicide

We are in the middle of the debates about assisted suicide. Here the fear for unbearable suffering, the financial burden on relatives and loneliness are used as arguments to legalise assisted suicide. Even someone who is “religiously unatuned” and is not able to understand the inviolability of human life, which is rooted in the image of God, can see the danger in that. The legality of euthanasia can lead to sick people being subtly or openly forced to finally die. This trend is already clearly visible when it is indicated, always outright, how high the costs of caring for the dying is. In reality palliative care has already advanced so much that it can respond to existing fears without assisting in suicide: even in severe cases, doctors can provide a painless [2].

Identity crisis of people: Theory of gender

In another area the crisis of humanity is also visible. The ideas of “gender” are in opposition to a Biblical-Christian image of humanity. This constructed theory postulates that being man and woman is interchangeable in all areas of life. Upbringing and cultural conditions primarily shape the gender roles of man and woman. These are considered to be cultural stereotypes that need to be overcome. Under the gentle-sounding term of gender diversity many claim that there aren’t any objective genders like men and women. Instead they propagate a gender diversity with many gender-identities. The individual can choose his gender himself.

This view of humanity is surprising in a time in which many are concerned with protecting creation. They advocate preserving the ecological balance, which can only be lauded. They are convinced that the structured order of creation serves the whole.

On the other hand many on society suffer from disorientation and confusion when the nature of man and the meaning of the human person is at stake.

God created humanity as man and woman

At the beginning of Holy Scripture we read, “God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. […] God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good” (Gen. 1: 27,31).

Let us, as baptised, not be discouraged in our witness to humanity. Let us make the Word of the God and the guidance of the Church our own. The holy Pope John Paul II has left us a valuable legacy in the form of the message of the beauty of humanity, which the Creator desired as maleness and femaleness. In his catechesis which became known as the”Theology of the Body” he explains the order of Creation as an expression of the love of the Creator, for man is desired and loved by God for his own sake.

Their physical difference already shows that man and woman are ordered towards one another. This mutual orderedness once again reveals that, in order to be fully human, we need unity with a personal opposite. The highest form of this personal union is the mutual gift, the reciprocal giving of man and woman in the loving bond of marriage [3]. This mutual giving is at the same time, of course, also a reciprocal receiving and accepting of the other.  As each partner is accepted for his own sake, he will find himself through his self-giving. From this discovery of himself he is once again able to give himself anew and more deeply: this self-giving becomes a new source of life [4].

From the manger shines the light of true humanity

Dear sisters and brothers, Christmas touches many people, also today. The deepest reason is that God confirms and renews this order of love through the incarnation of the Son. From the manger and through the life of Christ shines the light of true humanity. The many people who are no longer deeply rooted in religious practice obviously also feel this.

Let us allow Christ to invite us to His way of becoming man, in order to become man ourselves. We, the baptised, can then give witness of how fulfilling the way of becoming man according to God’s order of creation and in the Spirit of Jesus is.

Encounter as the key to incarnation

The key to our own incarnation lies in encounter. Only in my opposite do I recognise myself and can I become the man according to God’s plan. In the reaction of the other I see my own “I” reflected, which I would not have been able to see otherwise. Encounter is therefore essential.

Three manifestations of human encounter can play a special role on the road to our incarnation. In a certain way they can also be understood as answers to the three symptoms of the crisis of humanity outlined above.

Incarnation in hospitality

Conversation with family members and friends, when I take them time for it, is one such encounter which can contribute to the formation of my own “I”, my own incarnation. Because of the reciprocity of encounter the same is of course also true for those who encounter me. There where we express hospitality and accept the stranger in Christian charity, an additional aspect is added. In the encounter with the stranger elements can be revealed which remain hidden in an exchange with people I already know. The hospitality towards refugees as a step in my own incarnation can then also be a first answer to the inhumanity in the world, which is shown in persecution and repression.

Incarnation in friendship

A second way of personal encounter is friendship. The essential characteristic of friendship as a human encounter is the personal attachment to one person. Precisely the friendship with Christ gives us the strength for such a deep personal connection. In friendship we learn to exceed ourselves and go beyond our urge for self-realisation. The acceptance of a friend for his own sake is the essence of friendship. True and lasting friendships are also a remedy for the desire for legalised suicide, which is in essence nothing but a cry of desperation.

Incarnation in marriage

The mutual acceptance of the other for his own sake finds its highest form in marriage. The personal bond of friendship is in the marriage between a man and a woman once more exclusively directed at one single partner. Through their reciprocal commitment and simultaneous acceptance of the other for their own sake, the partners encourage each other in their self-discovery and incarnation.

The marriage partners living in mutual love and commitment strengthen each other not only mutually, but also give direction to people who are still looking for the fullness of humanity in the spreading identity crisis.

All of you, who are travelling from the manger as roadside communities, as families, circles of friends, communities, parishes and organisations, the Triune God blesses, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Eichstätt, on the feast of Saint Elisabeth of Thuringia, 19 november 2014.

Yours,

Gregor Maria Hanke OSB
Bishop of Eichstätt”


(1) Gaudium et Spes, 22.
(2) Cf. Gisela Klinkhammer, Mit großer Sorgfalt und klinischer Erfahrung, in: Deutsches Ärzteblatt 111 (38) , 19 September 2014, 1552f.
(3) Cf. Theology of the Body (TOB) 14,4; quoted in: John Paul II, Human Love in God’s Plan of Salvation. A Theology of the Body (republished by Norbert und Renate Martin), second revised edition, Kisslegg 2008, 161.
(4) Cf. TOB 17,6.

The question of death

A good question for today, and one I was asked yesterday, is why Christianity sometimes seems to be so focussed on death?

It’s true, sometimes we read and hear a lot about death, but also about the life that comes after. On the Cross, after all, Jesus Christ saved us, for all time, from eternal death, so to ignore it in our faith would be rather foolish. But does that mean that our life here on earth is nothing but a prelude to what comes later, a time of preparation and not a life of positives an negatives in its own rights? Certainly not.

We currently (assuming that my entire readership consists of people here on earth, of course…) live in God’s creation. This is where our earthly life takes place, and God created it because he desired to do so, and He intends us to life in it. To not life that life to the fullest in the Creation that God has given us responsibility for (Gen. 1:28), would be negligence.

God also went to great lengths to assure that life would endure, that His creation would not be left empty. An example is the story of Noah (Gen. 6:9 – 8:22).

In Jesus Christ, God desired to grant man the fullness of life (Matt. 4:4). Throughout the Gospels we find reports of how Jesus restored people to the fullness of their lives, in the miracles He performed. And, as I wrote before, Christ died and rose again to be victorious over death (Rom 6:10).

So to say that our life here on earth only matters as a time of preparation for what is to come is not true. But that is not the same as saying that the time to come does not matter, or that we should not prepare for it.

Death is a reality. Some day our life here on earth will end, and after a shorter or longer time we will enter into the eternal life with God. In the final book of the Bible, Revelation, we read much cryptic language about the end times, but we may be assured from this text that death no longer has any power of those belonging to Christ. That is us. But our earthly life will end, and we will meet the Lord face to face afterwards. It is good, even necessary to prepare for that. As Christians, it is good to have some preoccupation with death, although it should not be a singular preoccupation, because we also have a duty in life.

Today is All Souls’ Day, on which we remember all who have died; those who are with the Lord, those who are not, and those who someday will be. We all belong to the second or third category. A prayer for the dead is also a prayer for ourselves.

Photo credit: Inge Verdurmen

Art credit: ‘The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs’, by Fra Angelico (1423-4) © The National Gallery, London

Credo – our faith confessed, part 5

The Creed is the faith that we confess at every Mass, and it is therefore a summary of what we believe, the truths we hold as such – truths. These truths not only identify what we believe in, but also who we are. They form our Catholic identity.

On the road towards the Year Of Faith, I want to take a look at the Nicene Creed, line by line, to see what it tells us about the truth of being Catholic Christians.

Through him all things were made.

A short line, but one with far-reaching consequences when it comes to our understanding of Jesus Christ. In the first book of the Bible we read that God created everything through the act of speaking: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). And now we find that God created made all things through Christ. Christ and the act of speaking, the word or logos, are then the same: Christ is the Word of God.

This tells us something fundamental about Him. Not only did everything come to be through Him, even before we know Him, He continues to be creative. Our relationship with Jesus is a creative relationship, it makes us into new people.

Entering into a relationship with Christ is then not without consequences. We need to get to know Him and be willing to be changed by Him, for that is the essence of His Person: He is the creative Word of God made flesh.

And words need to be spoken. Time and again, the Gospels show us the importance of speaking.  Christ heals by speaking out that someone is cured, for example. We too, are called to express our relationship with Jesus, by speaking the Word of God to others.

Nothing new under the sun – old heresies resurface

They may conjure up images of medieval witch trials and whatnot, but heresies are really nothing to get into a fuzz about. Well, the specific heresies may be, but the fact that the Church calls certain beliefs and opinion heretical should not. A heresy is nothing more complicated than a teaching that undermines the faith in a grave enough manner that supporting, promoting or following it has a serious penalty as a consequence. And that because such a heresy endangers the souls of the faithful.

One such heresy that I came across today* has several names, but most people who know it, will know it as modalism or Sabellianism. A short definition would be that modalism holds that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are merely three ways, or modes, in which God has revealed Himself to people.

Why is this a heresy? Why can’t the Father, Son and Holy Spirit not be three forms in which God interacts with us? Well, for starters, it would make His own existence, as we have come to know it, a fake. Countless times do we read in the Gospels how Jesus prays to His Father. If both were just roles played by the one God, why would He do that? In the Prologue of the Gospel of John we read that the Word was God and was with God. The Word of God is Jesus, the Son, but why, if the Son and the Father are the same, would John tell us that the one was with the other? In Genesis, we read about the spirit of God hovering over the deep. Not God, but His Spirit. Why would God play a role before an empty deep?

There is one God in three Persons. These three Persons are not the same. They are separate and unique, but they are all equally God. This is a mystery of our faith, which means that it is something that goes beyond our understanding. It is good that some things are beyond our ken, because God is not limited to the understanding of his creatures. If He were, He would be limited. A two-dimensional creature has no way of understanding three or even four dimensions. We have no way of understanding or even imagining the five, six or more dimension that scientists say exist. And we have no way of grasping the Trinity, but that has no bearing on its reality.

Is the Trinity unlikely? Perhaps. But it is what God has taught us, through Jesus’ prayers, and through the work of the Holy Spirit.

In articles 253 to 255, the Catechism of the Catholic Church delves into the Trinity. It has this to say [emphasis mine, notes removed for ease of reading]:

253 The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the “consubstantial Trinity”. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: “The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God.” In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), “Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature.”

254 The divine persons are really distinct from one another. “God is one but not solitary.” “Father”, “Son”, “Holy Spirit” are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: “He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son.” They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: “It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds.” The divine Unity is Triune.

255 The divine persons are relative to one another. Because it does not divide the divine unity, the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another: “In the relational names of the persons the Father is related to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both. While they are called three persons in view of their relations, we believe in one nature or substance.” Indeed “everything (in them) is one where there is no opposition of relationship.” “Because of that unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son.”

But who’s to say that what the Church teaches through the Catechism is right? That belief, that trust in the dogmatic teachings of the Church flows directly from th words of Jesus and the belief in the Holy Spirit who guides us. If we express faith in His words to St. Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19), and in the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, we must als have faith in the Church that Christ established upon Peter, and the faith that she safeguards and communicates.

God is Triune: one Being in three Persons. This we know through Scripture, the Word of God, and the teachings of the Church of Christ. To say otherwise is a denial of God as He is. God does not pretend. He is who He says He is.  He is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are all true Persons, not phantasms or roles He plays before us. Because He takes us seriously, He reveals Himself to us as He is.

*The source linked to above is a Dutch text, a reflection given by lay Dominican Leo de Jong on Trinity Sunday, at the nominally Catholic church ‘Het Steiger’ in Rotterdam. In this reflection, Mr. de Jong denounces our understanding of the Trinity as three separate divine Persons as nonsense. Instead, he says, these persons are three forms in which Gods allows Himself to be known. This misleading teaching, presented as profound knowledge, is in reality a centuries-old heresy.

For a further Biblical explanation of the Trinity, go here.

Art credit: [1] Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1737-1738.

Celebrating the cathedral

“Instead of a vaccine that numbs, we must be a medicine that heals.”

Words from Archbishop André Dupuy, Apostolic Nuncio to the Netherlands, at the Mass he concelebrated at our cathedral on Pentecost Sunday. The nuncio made the closing remarks in rather decent Dutch, considering that he has only been here since December. I imagine it’s  due to his being part of the Holy See’s  diplomatic mission here before.

The Mass itself was the main closing event of the week which marked the 125th anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral church of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. As such, the nuncio, concelebrated not only with our current bishop, Msgr. Gerard de Korte, who also gave the homily, but also with cathedral administrator, Father Rolf Wagenaar and Father Marius Kuipers, who works in the parish as emeritus priest.

In his homoiy, Bishop de Korte looked back on the events of the week, ads ahead to the future. He outlined some of his wishes for the church to be a learning and teaching community, where the faith is lived and communicated, not only in the liturgy (for which he explicitly noted Fr. Wagenaar’s contributions over the past thirteen years), but also in our service to the world beyond the cathedral walls.

After the Mass, the bishop and the cathedral administrator returned to the sanctuary to receive the first copies of the memorial book about the cathedral. Titled Van Volkskerk tot Kathedraal, de St.-Jozefkerk in Groningen (From people’s church to cathedral, the St. Joseph’s church in Groningen), the book looks chiefly at the building and everything in it. As Fr. Wagenaar writes in his foreword:

“Several studies have already appeared about this church, but never a true monograph, and this church does deserve one, because she provides such a  complete program of what a Catholic church wants to be. A church is a meeting place […] but a Catholic church means so much more. “Awe-inspiring is this place, abode of God, the gate of heaven,” the introit of the Holy Mass of dedication of a church says, taken from the book of Genesis 28:17.”

The book, the end product of two years of work by a team of historians, looks in detail at several aspects of the Gothic Revival church: history, construction, architecture, furnishings, symbolism, vestments and liturgical vessels, organs, clocks and the liturgical disposition. For me as a parishioner it offers a new look at things I’ve often looked at – providing a sense of history and context beyond the building and into the larger community of faithful that is the Church.

The cathedral has known its ups and downs, as the book makes clear. From the threat of closure and demolition in the early 80s, it is now the home of a faith community with members of all ages, with an adequate liturgy and catechesis, and a large team of volunteers. With the bishop, I sincerely hope that the future is one of growth and development and these and other aspects.